An evening of drinking with his live-in girfriend turned into arguing. She wanted to leave, but he blocked the door and refused to let her go. When he passed out, she called the police who charged him with aggravated kidnapping. He was a veteran who had been stationed around the world and in several combat zones.
Veterans Court admitted him after a battery of tests and pleading guilty to felony charges. Veterans Court sentenced him to a rigorous rehabilitation rather than a prison sentence of between 15 years to life.
The motto of Veterans Court is “We do not lie, cheat, or steal.”
After 37 years of “being a cop” and 25 years as a hostage negotiator, in 2015 Unified Police Department assigned Greg Smith of Stansbury Park to be the only Compliance Detective for the then new 3rd District Veterans Court in Salt Lake City.
“They told me, ‘you’re making it up as you go, and your fingerprints will be all over this.’” Smith said.
Smith is a highly decorated “cop,” have earned the Gold Medal of Valor and three Police Distinguished Service Medals for some for high profile Utah crimes, many of them where he intervened and protected people in shoot outs and hostage situations. Smith sees his Veteran’s Court job description as being a friend to veterans.
“A friend that will tell them the truth,” he said.
Smith picks up a new court veteran at the Adult Detention Center and takes them to breakfast. They talk for an hour or two.
“It’s hard to get pissy with someone that’s paying for your food.” Smith said.
After breakfast, he delivers the veteran to their assigned treatment center. He also visits their homes to make sure they reside in a crime and drug-free environment. Smith doesn’t wear a uniform because they can raise people’s anxiety.
“What we’re trying to get them to do is not be anxious all the time, not react emotionally all the time,” Smith said.
Judge Royal Hansen developed and presides over Veterans Court.
“He’s one of the greatest men I’ve met in my life,” Smith said.
Hansen assigns the veterans to call Smith everyday to check in during the first phase, which includes clinical treatment.
“Some of them wait until 23.45 hours, a quarter to midnight,” Smith said. “I tell the judge jokingly that my wife would be OK if they called when the sun’s up.”
In the middle of the night, Smith has taken the veterans to the hospital, other sanctuaries, and met with them.
“If you’re sitting in your office, you’re not dealing with your people,” Smith said. “My hours start when they start. They always know they can call any time.”
Veterans Court involves 40-50 veterans who have felony arrests. These veterans have to be the most needy as determined by risk and needs assessments.
“We’re taking high risk, high needs people,” Smith said.
However, accepted veterans cannot have a “less than honorable” or “dishonorable” discharge and must plead guilty to felony charges.
“They’re very substantial charges, armed robberies, robberies — some charges where most people’s eyes would twirl around like no, no, no,” Smith said.
Veterans Court has five phases and takes between 18-36 months to graduate from stages one through five.
According to Smith, around 70% of the veterans graduate, and 80% of those do not come back into the system. The judge sentences out those who opt out of the system most likely to jail or prison.
With few exceptions, the road to Veterans Court for a veteran begins with self medicating with alcohol and drugs as a result of combat experience. The injuries are both psychological and physical.
Most of the veterans are single because they have trust issues.
“When they start self medicating, relationships don’t work for them. They don’t know how to have a relationship,” Smith said.
The few exceptions to self-medication have traumatic brain injuries as a result of combat.
“They have to learn to process again in really concentrated therapy,” Smith said. “They get really frustrated and it comes out as anger. They know they’re different, but they can’t wrap their arms around ‘why is my life so hard now.’”
Judge Hansen assigns court veterans to substance abuse counseling, anger management, compassion and empathy coaching, and Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), a treatment strategy to increase moral reasoning, etc.
“They have to learn how their actions affect other people,” Smith said.
Smith said veterans who have seen death and destruction and then commit armed robbery will argue that they did not hurt anyone because they did not shoot.
“I explain to them that you’ve taken away their ability to feel safe,” Smith said, “What MRT makes them do is recognize that you shove a gun in people’s face, they’re traumatized. They think ‘I’m done for.’ They’re different.”
Staying on the prescribed regimen of treatments is rigorous and difficult.
“I’d rather that they call and inconvenience me when they need help than to not call and have the wheels all fall off for them,” Smith said. “They need to remember that they once knew how to do hard things.”
Veteran’s benefits finance the treatment.
“They paid for those benefits with sometimes their own blood,” Smith said.
Smith’s experience as a “cop” and a hostage crisis negotiator prepared him for this assignment.
“I’ve learned a lot about people,” he said.
Smith will help the veterans consider their choices.
“I never tell guys what to do. I make them make their choices. If I tell them what to do, they’re not growing,” Smith said.
He encourages them to have plan ABC and D in order to stay sober and complete the rigorous treatment.
However, if the veteran screws up too many times, he is sentenced out of the court.
“Sometimes there comes a point where we’re working harder for their sobriety than they are,” Smith said.
Veterans Court allows the veteran to have contact with someone from the court team every day. The court team includes case workers, Workforce Services personnel who work with the vet on education and employment, mentors, and a compliance officer.
“The team looks at this individual. What do they need to help fix them. Then they provide it,” Smith said.
All veterans have to call every day to find out if they need to provide a new urine analysis (UA) that day. If they fail or miss a UA, they have to explain it to the judge.
In phase one they go to court every week.
“They stand in front of the judge and give an accounting of what they’ve been doing, good or bad,” Smith said.
Judge Hansen praises those who are progressing. The program recognizes that relapse is part of addiction recovery. However, if a veteran becomes noncompliant by missing appointments and UAs and “sneaking around,” Judge Hansen will issue a warrant for their arrest. Here, Smith becomes the contact to triage the problem, which includes taking veterans into custody.
At phase two, vets go to court every other week. Phase three, four and five vets only go to court once a month. The court expunges the vet’s felony record upon graduation from Veterans Court.
One 12-year Marine with an honorable discharge started self medicating with alcohol and committed a felony.
“You don’t make it in the Marine Corp for 12 years if you’re a mess up,” Smith said. “Because of the alcohol, his judgment went, booooooooooom.”
Thd vet graduated in August 2018. He still calls Smith everyday to make sure he stays on track.
“Watching him grow and progress in the career he’s got now is just magic,” Smith said.
“What we try to do is help them find something meaningful to be involved in, not just therapy,” Smith said. “The community is sticking their neck out to help them, but you’ve got to help back.”
The court’s model is to restore a veteran’s honor and to regain their life.
Smith is the first person the veteran calls when they are in trouble and the last person they hug when they graduate from Veteran’s Court.
The Utah State Bar Association voted Smith the 2019 Community Member Award for the Utah Courts.